Tifenn Cloarec, Strategy Partner, Vizeum Global
The COVID-19 conversation oscillates between “it changes everything” and “it changes nothing.” The values and motivations we humans hold dear are remarkably slow-changing. While we are all adopting new habits by necessity for the time being, it is unlikely we will all permanently turn into marathon runners, neighbourhood activists or bread makers.
Every day, though, we read how the pandemic is a catalyst for change and is inspiring us to become better people.
We don’t think the pandemic itself will change people or what they aspire to in life. As humans, we will still be as well-intentioned but flawed, self-centred and short-term focused as we have always been. However, the pandemic experience does have the potential to shine a light on the disconnect between our core human motivations and the reality of our modern lifestyles. It can make us more aware of what adjustments are needed in the way we run our lives and societies to bring us closer to our optimal nature. It can uncover changes that have long simmered under the surface or emerged only in pockets but have been slow to manifest in broader society.
Now is the time when we are more likely to be motivated to make these needed adjustments. The most significant barrier to behaviour change is inertia, a resistance to change driven by a preference for the status quo and a lack of motivation. As we step out of our hamster wheel routines, face more daily challenges and experience stronger emotions than usual, we become more aware we need change and are more motivated to do so. COVID-19 has taken us on a worldwide emotional rollercoaster that has played havoc with our moods. In the UK, the YouGov mood tracker
has shown well above average fluctuations in the emotions of stress, happiness, sadness and fear. Psychologists have likened the pandemic experience to going through the stages of grief
This time of pandemic will not change our aspirations, but it may accelerate the conditions conducive for change.
Let us look at three core human needs (as defined by Maslow
) as examples:
Safety is a basic human need, second only to eating and breathing. Without it, we can’t aspire to much else. As we become more prosperous, we give less thought to fulfilling our need for personal safety and take if for granted. The pandemic has challenged this attitude by very literally threatening our lives and highlighting the dangers of our “just in time” societies which can be brought to their knees by shortages of paper masks and basic food staples. Beyond insurance companies and disinfectant products, few brands consider safety a sexy aspiration. Post pandemic, however, it may gain more widespread emotional resonance.
Most western societies sit at the extreme left of the individualism/collectivism spectrum. It comes with the exhilarating benefits of unlimited personal freedom and ability to shape our unique selves, but also means feelings of belonging are low. We are increasingly suffering from loneliness and a lack of community spirit due to the disintegration of institutions that used to play that role: the church, the nuclear family, the village hall, etc. In this time of crisis, community spirit is reigniting in inventive ways. However, how can we sustain it post-pandemic, when the street clapping for our health services, deliveries of essentials on each other’s doorsteps and rainbow drawings have all gone?
We have never been more educated, liberated from heavy manual work, and free to apply personal talents to a broad spectrum of occupations. However, research shows that while work takes up most of our time and mind space, job satisfaction has not increased for decades. As the hamster wheel is paused, we find ourselves wondering what truly fulfils us and questioning the outdated work-related conventions we have been holding onto for far too long. The demand for online courses is exploding and putting into question the high fees charged by brick and mortar universities. Many of us are wondering whether we still really need to go to the office or should we move to the countryside. And many companies have suddenly found IT solutions for their employees to work remotely. All of this has meant that self-employment is becoming an appealing prospect for many (despite the upcoming recession) in a job market obsessed with agility.
What this means for brands
This pandemic is a wakeup call for brands to respond with concrete missions that give them meaning and relevance by serving our core needs and reflecting our real-life human aspirations. Lofty brand mission statements based on generic values from friendship to freedom, or worse, creating a better world, have been rightly ridiculed by our industry, yet they and still adopted by most companies. Now is the time to realise how truly disconnected from real life these ideals are and let them go.
The most responsive brand missions are based on potent insights that identify disconnects between what is and what could be. A brand striving to ease that tension between reality and aspiration can play a significant role in the world when it deploys the kind of strategy that takes us along on the mission as opposed to wandering towards a vague ideal.
Gin, for example, is usually a rather shallow category that relies on fads and quirks to momentarily capture our attention. By contrast, Hendrick’s Gin adopted a longer-lasting cultural role for their brand after recognising that our modern societies are eroding one of our fundamental human characteristics: curiosity. Curiosity is a vitally important innate human trait without which we wouldn’t evolve as a species. However, modern society tends to grind curiosity out of us by satisfying our every desire before we get a chance to explore. If our curiosity is not rewarded, we stop being curious, and it becomes harder for us to stretch our curiousity muscles when the opportunity arises. By rewarding
people every time they show curiosity, Hendrick’s retrains them to be curious again and again, and as a result, helps close the gap between our true human nature and the pitfalls of modern society.
This is an excellent time to push the reset button. Ideally, if we will realise that what is good for us personally is ultimately good for us all, we can focus on helping modern society rediscover our greater human potential. As brand guardians, marketers and advertisers have an opportunity to help diagnose and direct the changes we universally yearn for and turn them into concrete actions that will bring people closer to what fulfils them.